The Illini Nation

May - 25

The Illini Nation

The name “Illinois” is the French version of the Native American name “Illiniwek”, which means “people”. They are an Algonquin nation whose language resembles that of their neighboring Miami, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi tribes. They stated to early French explorers that they were directly descended from the area’s mound-building cultures. In 1780 a chief told George Rogers Clark that his ancestors had built the Great Mound located at Cahokia, and he gave Lewis and Clark an accurate description of the layout and purpose of the site. They were the dominant tribe in the area, and hunted well into western Kentucky, and across Iowa and Missouri (where they occasionally skirmished with Wichita and Pawnee).

When the Beaver Wars began in the 1640s along the western Great Lakes many tribes were forced to move west. By 1655 former lands in southern Wisconsin were occupied by groups of Fox, Kickapoo, Sauk, and Miami; while groups of Shawnee had moved into central Illinois. In that year the Iroquois attacked the Illini and forced them to retreat west across the Mississippi River. They originally comprised twelve distinct sub tribes which shared a common language, culture, and kinship. Although the Confederacy was not as cohesive as the League of the Iroquois, its political unity was enough to dominate the other tribes in the area.


In the late seventeenth century the lifestyle was one of a woodland culture resembling neighboring tribes. Larger villages were focal points for trade and socializing. These villages were located in river valleys because of the rich soil available for agriculture. After the spring planting they often separated to different hunting villages, returning for the harvest in the fall. They were more dependent for food than their neighbor tribes. When the Iroquois made peace with the French in 1667 groups began returning to their former territory as far east as present-day Watseka, but they never were as numerous there as before.

Tribe men were principally hunters and the women gathered and tended the fields. Apart from this usual division of labor, women in society often became shamans and took on roles of political leadership on a level which paralleled the men. Monogamy was the rule but soral polygamy (a man marrying several sisters) was not unheard of. Although men were not normally punished for adultery, unfaithful women were mutilated or killed.

Prior to the 1670’s the traditional enemies were the Sioux (Dakota), Pawnee, Osage, and Winnebago. However by the late seventeenth century the enemies list expanded to include all of the tribes in the region; their only allies were the French. It was the Native American enemies – not the encroaching white man – who destroyed them as a nation. By the 1690’s refugee tribes which had moved to southern Wisconsin in the 1650’s began expanding into northern Illinois as far as what is now Bourbonnais Illinois, but their numbers declined until in 1803 they placed themselves under American governmental protection and ceded all claims to their original homeland.

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